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Emergency Situations - Man Falling Overboard from a Ship

written by: Ricky • edited by: Lamar Stonecypher • updated: 4/23/2009

Sailing across the high seas is certainly an exhilarating experience, but it may be marred by chaos and confusion if a person were to fall in the sea. This is known as the man overboard situation and there are special procedures in place for dealing with such emergencies.

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    Introduction

    Sailing on a cruise ship as a passenger or working on board any type of ship either in the navigating or engineering department can be a really enjoyable experience. There is a vast expanse of sea all around you. The ship is designed to be very safe and there are equipments such as lifeboats to deal with any emergency situation. Yet it may so happen that all of a sudden someone may fall into the sea. This could be due to slipping, jerky motion when standing near the edge of the deck or possibly someone just pushed you while you were enjoying and imitating like the Titanic couple (see adjacent figure). Just imagine the plight of a person (even if he is the best swimmer or a F1 Powerboat Racing champion) who suddenly finds himself/herself surrounded by a vast expanse of the sea.

    Dont Try This 

    In the above case, the situation where a person has fallen “over the board” is known as man overboard (it applies to female falling overboard as well). Needless to say this is a pretty critical situation and steps need to be taken to rescue the person fallen overboard using various techniques including light and smoke signals and sending out an MOB boat if available.

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    The Man Overboard

    Falling overboard in the sea is a dangerous situation and the risk could be due to any of the following factors.

    • The person does not know how to swim and there are chances of drowning
    • There could be dangerous predators, but it depends on the area where the person has fallen.
    • If the water is sufficiently cold, hypothermia could set in very fast, causing unconsciousness or death.
    • Even if none of the above criteria apply, the psychological shock of falling in the sea could be sufficient to create a panic in the mind of the person, which is the worst of all.
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    Rescue of the Man fallen Overboard

    • As far as the person who has fallen overboard, the best thing for him is to keep cool and avoid panic as that would worsen the situation. He should try to attract the attention of the people on board the ship or passing by vessels in case anyone hasn’t seen him/her falling overboard.

    • Even if you are the best swimmer in the world, do not waste energy by swimming. A report published in a US Navy journey stated that most people who were lost at sea and later found dead, showed signs of exhaustion rather than drowning. Even otherwise your chances of recovery are greatest if you stay close to the position where you fell

    • The person on board whoever sees or suspects that he has seen a person fall overboard should immediately raise an alarm on the ship. The Emergency signal is sent out appropriate authorities should be notified and the ship should be maneuvered in manner so as not to loose sight of the person and ensure his/her safety.

    • Three blasts are sounded on the ship’s whistle and a vertically fired flare is launched.

    • The coordinates of the person fallen overboard should be noted and appropriate safety gear such as a lifebuoy should be thrown towards the person, taking care not to hit him/her directly. Also a smoke signal should be activated and thrown into the sea near the place where the person has fallen.

    • If the person is in sight of the navigating officers, they should take the quickest route to the person, but if the person is not in sight, the ship has to take a Williamson turn, which is a sort of U-turn as seen from the adjacent picture. The vessel should always be brought upwind of the person fallen overboard and once spotted; the person should be sufficiently in front from the propellers and rudder of the ship. The tiny red coloured thing in the picture is the person overboard. Williamson Turn 

    • Once the ship reaches the position near the person and starts rescue operation, it again sounds two long whistles. The exact manner in which the person is saved depends on the type of ship and safety gear available. For example if there is a man-overboard boat, that should be launched and the person taken in that. In cruise liners there is a special small and fast boat meant as MOB boat but in commercial ships, normally the lifeboat is designated as the MOB boat as well.

    • Once a person is rescued and brought on ship, proper medical attention is required which will be discussed in a different article.

    • As with other emergencies, the ship crew cannot cope with such a situation unless they are fully prepared for this. Drills are an important part of onboard life and the picture shows a drill in progress. Of course this picture has been taken from a Naval ship where they come close to the real thing, but on commercial vessels the drill is not performed by actually throwing someone into the sea but just assuming that is has happened (and Praying it never happens).

    In the end if you ask me what are the chances of a person falling overboard getting rescued, I must tell you without being pessimistic that the chances of his/her getting rescued are pretty slim as far as historical data goes. Hence the best bet is to stay safe and do not try to imitate Kate Winslet or Leonardo but be a hero by staying alive.

    MOB Drill 

    MOB Boat 

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    Image Credits

    MOB Boat: Luke Swartz Website

    MOB Drill: US Navy Website

    Williamson's Turn: Transport Canada Website